[iDC] sentiment geeks and the social graph

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Tue Oct 13 12:52:03 UTC 2009

Just to follow Marc's post, a little clipping on the neuroscience buzz 
from today's NYT. One of the more interesting lines in here is this one: 
"Economists, political scientists and policy makers treat humans as 
ultrarational creatures because they can’t define and systematize the 
emotions." That's the big conclusion economists are drawing from the 
derivatives meltdown, and in fact, the sentence itself is more or less 
clipped out of Justin Fox's book on The Myth of the Rational Market, 
which ends by staging a transition between the old, calculating model of 
homo economicus to the new behavioral economics, attentive to systematic 
over-valuations of asset prices due to first impressions, big scares, 
etc. The gates are now open for  a research stampede in social cognitive 
neuroscience to get closer to what makes Jane investor and Joe consumer 
really tick. The idea that all this would have benign uses, would help 
us to become a kinder, gentler, more sensitive and democratic nation, is 
quaint. Of course many of the researchers will try their best, but since 
their basic paradigm of social interaction rests on neobehaviorist 
reflex-arcs originating in the autonomous nervous system, it will be 
difficult. Like any social science developed under capitalism, this one 
will mainly be deployed to manipulate people for the usual purposes of 
naked greed and subliminal control. -- BH

October 13, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist
The Young and the Neuro

When you go to an academic conference you expect to see some geeks, 
gravitas and graying professors giving lectures. But the people who 
showed up at the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society’s conference 
in Lower Manhattan last weekend were so damned young, hip and 
attractive. The leading figures at this conference were in their 30s, 
and most of the work was done by people in their 20s. When you spoke 
with them, you felt yourself near the beginning of something long and 

In 2001, an Internet search of the phrase “social cognitive 
neuroscience” yielded 53 hits. Now you get more than a million on 
Google. Young scholars have been drawn to this field from psychology, 
economics, political science and beyond in the hopes that by looking 
into the brain they can help settle some old arguments about how people 

These people study the way biology, in the form of genes, influences 
behavior. But they’re also trying to understand the complementary 
process of how social behavior changes biology. Matthew Lieberman of 
U.C.L.A. is doing research into what happens in the brain when people 
are persuaded by an argument.

Keely Muscatell, one of his doctoral students, and others presented a 
study in which they showed people from various social strata some images 
of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited 
more activation in the amygdala (the busy little part of the brain 
involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families.

Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa studied Arabs and 
Jews while showing them images of hands and feet in painful situations. 
The two cultures perceived pain differently. The Arabs perceived higher 
levels of pain over all while the Jews were more sensitive to pain 
suffered by members of a group other than their own.

Mina Cikara of Princeton and others scanned the brains of Yankee and Red 
Sox fans as they watched baseball highlights. Neither reacted much to an 
Orioles-Blue Jays game, but when they saw their own team doing well, 
brain regions called the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens were 
activated. This is a look at how tribal dominance struggles get 
processed inside.

Jonathan B. Freeman of Tufts and others peered into the reward centers 
of the brain such as the caudate nucleus. They found that among 
Americans, that region was likely to be activated by dominant behavior, 
whereas among Japanese, it was more likely to be activated by 
subordinate behavior — the same region rewarding different patterns of 
behavior depending on culture.

All of these studies are baby steps in a long conversation, and young 
academics are properly circumspect about drawing broad conclusions. But 
eventually their work could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by 
fuzzy words like ‘culture.’ It could also fill a hole in our 
understanding of ourselves. Economists, political scientists and policy 
makers treat humans as ultrarational creatures because they can’t define 
and systematize the emotions. This work is getting us closer to that.

The work demonstrates that we are awash in social signals, and any 
social science that treats individuals as discrete decision-making 
creatures is nonsense. But it also suggests that even though most of our 
reactions are fast and automatic, we still have free will and control.

Many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by 
in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds. The 
anterior cingulate cortices in American and Chinese brains activate when 
people see members of their own group endure pain, but they do so at 
much lower levels when they see members of another group enduring it. 
These effects may form the basis of prejudice.

But a study by Saaid A. Mendoza and David M. Amodio of New York 
University showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding 
them to be racially fair, it is possible to counteract those 
perceptions. People feel disgust toward dehumanized groups, but a study 
by Claire Hoogendoorn, Elizabeth Phelps and others at N.Y.U. suggests it 
is possible to lower disgust and the accompanying insula activity 
through cognitive behavioral therapy.

In other words, consciousness is too slow to see what happens inside, 
but it is possible to change the lenses through which we unconsciously 
construe the world.

Since I’m not an academic, I’m free to speculate that this work will 
someday give us new categories, which will replace misleading categories 
like ‘emotion’ and ‘reason.’ I suspect that the work will take us beyond 
the obsession with I.Q. and other conscious capacities and give us a 
firmer understanding of motivation, equilibrium, sensitivity and other 
unconscious capacities.

The hard sciences are interpenetrating the social sciences. This isn’t 
dehumanizing. It shines attention on the things poets have traditionally 
cared about: the power of human attachments. It may even help policy 
wonks someday see people as they really are.

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